Profile: Sergio Rodriguez says community is priority
Summit mayor discusses his public service and dedication to helping the people of Summit, Illinois in this feature written by writer Steve Metsch
By Steve Metsch
(Special to DemocraticSuburbs.com website.) — If not for a friend who decided he was too busy to serve on the village board, Sergio Rodriguez may not be the mayor of Summit.
But that’s how his foray into the world of politics began.
The late Joe Strzelczyk, then mayor Summit, had asked Rodriguez’ friend about running for the village board.
“Joe always liked diversity on the board,” Rodriguez said.
His friend was too busy to run for office, and suggested Rodriguez, then 27 years old, may make a fine candidate. Rodriguez met with “Mayor Joe,” developed a friendship and he eventually was elected a village trustee in 2005, then re-elected in 2009 and 2013.
“I never had any experience besides coming out to vote or following politics on the news. I learned from him, understanding local politics in a more direct way, about how decisions are made and why they are made,” Rodriguez said.
When Strzelczyk died in 2015, Rodriguez was named to fill out the last two years of his term. Earlier this year, he ran unopposed for election and won a four-year term as mayor.
And, now the 39-year-old Rodriguez is one of only a handful of Hispanic mayors in the Chicagoland suburbs.
Rodriguez, who grew up in Summit, works in special education in the Cicero Public School District 99, where he is assistant director of special education for Elementary School District 99 in Cicero. His own schooling was in Summit. Whenever he attends an event at Argo Community High School, it’ a homecoming, having graduated from there in 1995.
Being the first Hispanic mayor of Summit, and one of the few Hispanic mayors in the Chicago area, is a source of pride for him. He thinks of his father and late mother, and of being a good example for Hispanic youths as the village’s first minority mayor.
“It’s a great honor to be the first elected Hispanic mayor of Summit but also in the region. There not too many in this area. I look at it with pride. It’s a big opportunity to be a role model. Not just for Hispanics but for all minorities. I look at myself as an average kid from the village of Summit who grew up, and had something to offer.”
“Hopefully, the younger generation and my peers can look and say, ‘Hey, he made it and is doing good for the community’,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, who is divorced, said it would be hard to be mayor and work a 9-to-5 job if he were married. Being single, he’s able to appear at various events in his mayoral role, attend village meetings and still do his job without worries about spreading himself too thin.
Then again, he admits the job “is not easy,” noting that when you are mayor, and people know you are mayor, you’re pretty much on the job 24/7. That goes for people approaching him at stores or restaurants or even on the street to share their concerns
He doesn’t mind, though, because he truly loves Summit, having grown in the village.
Summit Park District board commission Tony Cervantes sees it: “He cares about Summit. He’s doing the best he can, a wonderful job.”
“I’ve been working with Mayor Rodriguez for a while and I think he’s a wonderful mayor. He’s been doing things that make a difference. He’s working with the community. He’s always going to meetings, neighborhood watch or a senior lunch. He’s always there whenever we need him,” Cervantes said.
Rodriguez fondly recalls as a kid riding his bike “all the way to Willow Springs” on a trail found near the old boat launch. And now he’s working on plans on resurrecting the Port of Summit with help from a technical assistance grant courtesy the National Park Service.
Being younger, he turns 40 in November, means “I’m willing to try things and take risks.”
He says “I’m really not a social butterfly, but I’ll go to events and so forth.”
A runner for years, it’s his favorite hobby and a way to stay in shape. Residents will wave or beep car horns when they see him running down village streets. At Argo, he ran for the cross country and track teams.
A soft spoken man, Rodriguez won’t be seen climbing on a soap box, making a board meeting all about him. He prefers quietly listening to other’s viewpoints, especially those of residents who may voice complaints, rather than becoming confrontational. The residents may get frustrated and angry. He does not.
“There’s a lot of listening, a lot of things to consider. You do what you can with what you have, again, looking out for the best needs of the community,” he said.
One of the things that has helped Summit greatly was the board’s decision to add a 3 cents per gallon gasoline tax. That’s resulted in an extra $25,000 to $30,000 in village coffers each month, money that can be used to improve streets and alleys, or adding new street lights, issues near his heart.
Another is attracting new businesses, like the Popeye’s Chicken that will soon open on Harlem Avenue, a busy thoroughfare that Summit shares with Chicago. Think it will be busy? Just look a few blocks north at Portillo’s when it’s time for lunch or dinner.
Bumping the sales tax up a half percent also helped increase monies available for the village, he said. “With that, we hope to lower the property taxes if we don’t have to levy as much,” he said.
His main policy as mayor is a simple one: “My whole thing is about being fair with everybody.:
Rodriguez’ parents played a key role in his upbringing. His mother, Maria Eva, died when he was 10. His father, Felix, now 69, took over the duties of mom and dad, raising four boys and one girl. Having family nearby helped, Rodriguez said.
His father has become a valued, albeit unpaid, advisor of sorts, weighing in on various issues in the village. He appreciates the knowledge offered by his father.
“I tell everyone he’s the real mayor, you have to answer to him. My dad has been a huge role model for me. He was there to raise me and my four siblings. It helped out having our aunts living nearby, too. But my dad, I look at him. He was always a hard worker. He gave us guidance, but at the end of the day it was our decisions that we’d have to live with.”
Felix is on his mind when the village approves a big project or takes a key vote. “I always think, ‘What would my dad think about this?’ “
Father and son have breakfast each Sunday when they solve the world’s woes.
His late mother, who died of lupus, is never far from his thoughts. “I know she would be very proud. Friend tell me she’d be so happy of what I’ve become and what I’m m doing for the town,” he said. “That’s very meaningful for me.”
He has no designs on other political office, happy to be mayor as Summit continue to improve.
“I look at myself as a kid from a very small village, and I’m proof that you can overcome challenges you face, but it takes many people to invest their time. I’m just a product of everyone who cared and contributed to my wellbeing and progress. My goal is to give back to the town, to get people involved, to really take ownership of their town and home, and make sure they look out for each other.”